Among roads to Oscar victory, none has been so long and seemingly unreachable than the Best Actress prize for a woman of color. Back in 1939, Hattie McDaniel first broke the color barrier by winning Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Segregation was so strong at the time that McDaniel and the other Black cast members were not allowed at the film’s premiere in Atlanta. During that year’s Oscar ceremony, despite being a winner, McDaniel had to sit at the far recesses of the Coconut Grove near the kitchen.
The Academy was slow to acknowledge Black actresses, especially in leading roles. In 1954, for playing Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American nominated for Best Actress. She lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. It took another 18 years for the Academy to recognize more Black actresses in the category. In 1972, two competed for Best Actress: Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Cicely Tyson in Sounder. That year, no one stood much of a chance against Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Two years later, lovely Diahann Carroll garnered a surprise nomination for a small film called Claudine. Only one Black actress was nominated in either of the next two decades, with Whoopi Goldberg playing Celie in The Color Purple (1985) and Angela Bassett rocking as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). Although each won the Golden Globe, they both lost at the Academy Awards.
Then in 2001, Halle Berry took a role that Angela Bassett had passed on: grief-stricken Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball. At the 2001 Oscars, the Best Actress race could have gone any direction: like Berry, Judi Dench as Iris and Sissy Spacek as a grieving mother in In the Bedroom were both shattering. Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! and Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary captivated in their first Oscar-recognized performances. But the Academy broke new ground by finally awarding the Best Actress trophy to a Black actress.
Berry began her tearful acceptance speech by acknowledging former nominees Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, and Angela Bassett, as well as Lena Horn, Jada Pinkett, and Vivica Fox. Her references reminded a worldwide audience that groundbreaking comes over long hauls, in small pieces, and credit goes to all those who have gone before us to make our challenges a little smaller, and our opportunities a little greater.
We are all connected, not only to each other, but to those from the past who have helped make our success possible. We achieve what was once unreachable thanks to the dreams and courage of those who have taken our same path before us. Those groundbreaking heroes deserve credit for our accomplishments, too. With each passing generation, we are all able to dream more, do more, and be more thanks to those with the courage to have tried the same, shown us how, and helped us believe in what was once impossible.